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Big Easy Living: a new kind of neighborhood

Back when I worked for The Times-Picayune, I once commented in an article that New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods.

“Well, of course it’s a city of neighborhoods,” an obviously underwhelmed reader called to say bitingly. “Every city has neighborhoods.”

Yes, they do. But I didn’t mean that we have neighborhoods, so much as we are defined by our neighborhoods. Or perhaps they define us.

Whether you hail from the Black Pearl or the Lower Garden District, Gert Town or Bywater or Lake Vista, you know that your little piece of the New Orleans pie has a certain personality, look, feel, flavor, even accent.

Here in New Orleans, we’re porch sitters and street walkers. We talk to strangers. We hug strangers. We’re neighborly.

We are a city of neighborhoods.

Now Candy Chang, Tee Parham, and Dan Parham of Civic Center in New Orleans have taken the attitude to the Internet, with a web site called Neighborland.

Basically, it’s a place where New Orleans residents can meet virtually and share ideas about their surroundings. It offers a new way to meet your neighbors, online, and exchange suggestions for making your area of the city a better place.

“We started with a simple question,” write the site’s creators. “What if residents could easily share their ideas for improving their neighborhoods? … Can presenting this data in a transparent and friendly way help shape the development of a neighborhood?”

Neighborland launched in June, and so far has generated dozens of conversations about various parts of the city.

The format of the site is deceptively simple. It begins with a short fill-in-the-blank entry that any registered user can turn into a web page: “I want _______ in my neighborhood.”

Once you create the page, you can campaign for votes to support it, develop the idea into a project and solicit comments about it. The Neighborland team will try to help implement the most popular projects. So far, they’ve tackled two: Getting supermarkets in various under-served neighborhoods and extending the St. Claude streetcar.

But don’t dismiss Neighborland as just another city improvement projects web forum. What I love about the site is its thoughtfulness, gentleness, and sense of camaraderie among its residents.

Like their neighborhoods, these web visitors are individuals. That means they are quirky, personal, creative. They dream. Sometimes small:

“I want pet-friendly restaurants in the Garden District.”

“I want a parade of food trucks in the Central Business District.”

“I want a barber shop in the Bywater.”

“I want pedestrian crossings on Magazine Street in Audubon Park.”

Others dream large:

“I want live music to stop being persecuted in the Marigny.”

“I want to save the Hornets in New Orleans.”

Conversations at Neighborland are lively. The most-discussed general idea for the city: Put a green roof (a carpet of living plants) on the Super Dome. The project has elicited feedback from engineers (can a 9.7-acre roof hold the weight?), environmentalists (why not solar panels, too?) to poets (why not a waterfall spilling over the lip of the Dome?).

The largest community in residence at Neighborland is Bywater, where suggestions range from getting Dauphine Street paved to hankerings for block parties and a Chinese restaurant.

One thing I both love and hate about New Orleans is our resistance to change: We love our traditions, cherish our communities, and are wary of progress if it might mean giving up seafood specials on Fridays or, heaven forbid, go cups.

Neighborland creators understand this – that we want to retain those things that make our neighborhoods unique, while keeping up with 21st century living.

I see Neighborland as a kind of Internet version of stoop-sitting. And New Orleans has always been a stoop-sitting kind of place, where people gather to chat on porches or front steps or across a wrought-iron fence.

By all means, join the conversation. I am. My dog Lucy and I are so on board with that thread about pet-friendly restaurants in the Garden District.

Renee Peck writes a weekly column about Big Easy Living for NolaVie. 


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